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Four common problems people face with Facebook Instant Articles — and how to solve them

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Four common problems people face with Facebook Instant Articles — and how to solve them

Irshad Daftari | March 14, 2017

For any news publisher, going mobile isn’t a question of “When will we do this,” but “Why haven’t we done so already?” As several old-school publishers have discovered, going digital now means ensuring that your news site works on a desktop web, mobile web and app, all at once.

As I’ve seen during my work as an ICFJ Google Fellow in India, some of the country’s oldest newspaper brands have websites that aren’t mobile-optimized. They’re non-responsive, take a long time to load and often aren’t compatible with video.

Now there’s an easier option for news sites looking to go mobile — rather than start from scratch, publishers can implement Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and its more famous counterpart, Facebook Instant Articles (FB Instant). Basically, these tools will deconstruct and quickly reassemble a webpage so it can be viewed without any weird distortions on your Facebook app or your cellphone.

One newsroom where I’ve worked, data journalism site IndiaSpend, has seen key metrics rise  after implementing FB Instant and AMP. In particular, after adopting FB Instant, link clicks and time spent on a web page have risen sharply. AMP helps your webpage gain a higher pagerank according to Google, which makes it integral for improving the mobile search experience.

Getting started with FB Instant is as simple as getting your tech team to copy a code snippet into your CMS. However, as I’ve found out, implementing this tool can be trickier if you’re trying to do so in a newsroom where the desktop version of a website doesn’t work right — let alone the mobile version. Things can get confusing fast — so if your newsroom doesn’t have the most high-tech website, and you still want to experiment with implementing FB Instant, here’s what I would advise:

1. The embed conundrum.

I’m currently working with data journalists at IndiaSpend where the lifeblood of the stories are charts and interactive graphics. Try as you might, unless these charts are jpegs or in some other static format, they will not render in FB Instant or AMP. For instance, beautiful charts you may have created in Tableau will disappear from sight within a FB Instant article.

Unfortunately, there’s no workaround to this. So if you’re interested in implementing either of these tools, you better be ready to replace your interactive elements with static ones.

That said, videos and GIFs work beautifully on FB Instant and AMP. There’s even an option to make these elements auto-play. However, if your video and GIF embeds run in JavaScript, they’re not going to look good.

2. Screwy datelines and bylines.  

Many times, journalists will upload their articles to their CMS by copy-pasting from an email or Word document. Editors and web producers will then input the byline and the dateline themselves.  

However, FB Instant automates this process. Depending on your CMS, things may get screwed up, and you may find yourself publishing FB Instant articles without bylines and datelines.

Thankfully, the solution is ridiculously simple. If you’re using WordPress, there’s a particular snippet of code you’ll have to add separately to ensure that your byline doesn’t disappear. Make sure your tech team is aware of this issue when they’re working on integrating FB Instant.  

3. Missing images.

Similar to the missing datelines and bylines, sometimes images aren’t automatically recognized by FB Instant. So while you may have a headline image that appears on the desktop version of an article, another little snippet of code is required to ensure the image doesn’t disappear in an FB Instant article. Again, work with your tech team to troubleshoot this.

4. Broken URLs.    

This is another common technical problem. If your newsroom claims a single URL when signing up for FB Instant (say, www.icfj.org), then only posts from that specific URL will be recognized by FB Instant. For example, if your website also claims www.icfj.com and tries to post FB Instant articles from this URL, it won’t work. This is a problem for publishers who claim multiple URLs and redirect them to a single URL.

Solving this issue is a head-scratcher — basically, you’ll have to add a meta-tag to your website’s HTML code so that FB Instant can recognize it. Warn your tech team in advance that they’ll need to pay particular attention to this.

So, in summary:

  1. Work with your tech team to ensure all your code snippets are in place.
  2. Clean up your CMS and ensure that the AMP and FB Instant implementation are as close to plug and play as possible.
  3. Remember that JavaScript embeds won’t work on either of these platforms.

FB Instant and AMP will definitely give you results, and believe it or not, the process for implementing them is easy as well. Don’t let these bugs along the way throw you off.

Irshad Daftari, an experienced media strategist, specializes in digital journalism, audience engagement and news product development. He has a strong background training local journalists on the latest online journalism tools, including Google Fusion Tables, Dataminr, Newswhip, Facebook Live, interactive timelines and a variety of analytics platforms. Learn more about his work as an ICFJ Google Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Kārlis Dambrāns.

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